"A CATASTROPHIC moral crisis is tearing at the central nervous system of the Catholic Church in the United States. It is called pedophilia. Some priests have been identified as predators. Children are their victims. A related and broader scandal persists involving local bishops who persistently engage in cover-ups and resist adopting any realistic policies for responding to reports of child molestation by priests."
Nothing new in that, right? That's exactly the point: Those words were written 14 years ago, in a graduate thesis by a Mundelein College student.
Another quote: "We are concerned that the hierarchy's authority and credibility in the United States is [sic] eroding because of a perceived inability to deal more effectively with the problem of child sexual abuse. This difficulty is a source of scandal for the faithful."
That citation appears in a document prepared by a task force at the request of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and submitted for its consideration at a meeting held in New Orleans in June 1993.
Susan Secker, now an associate provost at Seattle University, was a member of the task force that submitted the report (later published in the Catholic magazine Origins), which not only defined the issue but offered a detailed 10-point program to address it. The program covered repairing the damage to victims of abuse, preventing further cases, and making sure that perpetrators of abuse not only received treatment themselves but were not provided with opportunities to sin again.
Secker was a professor of moral theology at Seattle U when she was asked to take part in the task force. "I didn't feel that my training or experience had prepared me for dealing with the subject, and I spent the six or eight weeks before we were supposed to meet talking to people here in the archdiocese, to national experts, psychologists dealing with child abuse and the like, trying to understand what was known about treatment of abusers and the risk of repeat offenses after therapy.
"I also talked to leaders of groups of parents whose children had suffered from abuse. Listening to their stories was devastating. I would go home after talking to these people and get physically sick. You have to keep in mind that for many, many Catholics, a priest is the most trusted person in their lives, the first person you turn to for help in reaching for a meaning in life. When someone is in serious trouble, they're not told to go to the police or an extended-family member. What they heard was 'Go to Father.'
"When parents learned their children had been abused, they were horrified, but their first response was not to go out and hire a lawyer; they turned to the church authorities, expecting them to be horrified, too—to respond. When we were asked to report to the bishops back in 1993, that's what we expected, too. Instead, they simply threw it away. They did nothing."
Why? Secker claims no special insight, but she points to the fact that the present pope is "socially liberal but doctrinally conservative," and that most of the men he has appointed to the post of bishop since his own elevation in 1978 share his conservative ideas. "I don't think we have one American prelate who has an appropriate conception of the kind of church American Catholics think they're a part of."
The moderate administrative reforms introduced by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) have had an enormous effect on the way American Catholics relate to their church. "Vatican II talked about concepts like 'the church of the baptized'; it introduced the idea of lay advisers to bishops, involving people in the business of the church for the first time. With the number of people taking holy orders diminishing all the time, more and more lay people were getting theological degrees. Today's church is far more educated."
And while the congregation of the faithful changed, the hierarchy did not: It remained an all-male club, as jealous of its prerogatives and secretive of its practices as such clubs have always tended to be.
That's what makes many American Catholics dubious that a meeting between an ailing pope and the U.S. cardinals—men he appointed to their jobs—will bring about the kind of change needed to solve the current crisis of confidence. "The hierarchy knew the dimensions of this problem 10 years ago and did nothing," Secker says. "They protected men whom they knew were criminals and failed to protect children whom they knew were at risk.
"You can try to understand and be charitable when you think about the priest-perpetrators, because we know now that therapy and counseling are usually not enough to prevent repeat offenses. But all you can feel about the people who concealed the abuse is betrayal."